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'Made for Love,' 'Handmaid's Tale,' and the Trap of Dystopian TV

The opening scene of Made for Love is an extremely well-constructed bit of television. A young woman in a sequined, emerald-green cocktail dress emerges, desperate and sputtering, from a sewer in the middle of the desert. Her big eyes dart—she’s clearly on the run. She falls back in, boinking her adorable head. Right away, the audience understands key pieces of information about the story: The hero, Hazel Green, is beautiful (she’s played by Cristin Milioti) and relatable (falling as she did back into that nasty sewer) and resourceful (she’s clearly escaped from somewhere high-security) and a down-and-dirty broad (“Fuck!” is the first thing she says, giving the finger to a sleek-looking corporate building that the audience can spot in the distance). It’s a nifty, condensed introduction, setting the tone and laying out the stakes in one clean masterstroke.

Based on the well-received 2017 comic novel of the same name, Made for Love is the brainchild of Alissa Nutting, who wrote the book and serves as the show’s executive producer and head writer. Nutting, who wrote the greatest Grub Street diet of all time, delights in deviancy. Her novel is a pervy romp, with a secondary plot about a hunk named Jasper who is attracted to dolphins. The story careens along with its wheels greased by Nutting’s winking sensibility, largely unconcerned with sentiment. When HBO Max announced that an adaptation was in the works, people wondered how they’d film a story so hung up on horniness for cetaceans. The fix, it seems, was to change the mood, polishing off the book’s freakier edges. Goodbye, nubile dolphins! To the show's credit, it does keep a sex doll named Diane in the mix, but overall, instead of original filth, it has a more conventional heart.

That conventionality comes at a cost. In molding a TV-friendly arc, the show leads Hazel on a circuitous journey rather than the book’s ungainly ramble forward. In both versions, Hazel is on the run from her tech-billionaire husband, Byron Gogol, who has implanted a chip into her head to “merge” with her. She flees to her father’s home after a decade of living in Byron’s corporate campus/home, nicknamed the Hub. While Byron (Billy Magnussen) is a menace in both versions, there’s a major change to how that behavior manifests in the show, where he holds Hazel captive, surveilling her every move. He’s an enthralling villain, more layered than his book counterpart. But what the show gains in a compelling performance, it loses in a legible relationship. In the book, Hazel hasn’t been physically trapped in the Hub. Her unhappiness is a sort of spiritual listlessness, and her decision to remain with Byron for 10 years tracks. In the show, Hazel is unhappy because she is literally imprisoned. It’s a change that makes Hazel a more obvious, screen-ready hero, but it also gives the show a heavy lift in convincing the audience that its feisty protagonist wouldn’t have made a run for it sooner.

The show teases something new and distinctive from its source material too. In the book, Hazel’s father, Herb, is a misanthrope covered in wispy white hair. In the show, he’s played by Ray Romano as more of a tender-hearted schlub than a true-blue curmudgeon. The relationship between Hazel and Herb kindles into something worth championing in the adaptation, reorienting the story around the father-daughter bond and deepening a pairing largely played for laughs in the novel. I do wish the derivative work had found a way to stay as defiantly strange and unsentimental as the original. But spit-shining said source material to make it more palatable to a wider audience is a Hollywood tradition. And when you’ve cast actors who exude the warmth that Milioti and Romano do, you might as well let the duo anchor the show. When Byron tells Hazel that Herb is dying of cancer in the book, she doesn’t rush in an attempt to save him, but instead accepts his fate. In the show, it’s decidedly quite different.

In the season finale, when Byron reveals Herb’s prognosis to Hazel, she decides to go back to the Hub in exchange for health care for her father. The return to the gilded techno-cage where Hazel began the show essentially presses the reset button on the whole plot, trapping her in the same place she attempted escape at the start. This is where patience for adaptations should run thin—when they cling too closely to the circumstances of the source material, which has a more linear plot, and run the risk of retreading over old story beats.

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This is something television shows do all the time, so much so that it’s a well-worn trope known as “failure is the only option.” The hero cannot really win, or the stakes will dissolve. So they get caught in their narrative, a Westworld host lost in their own loop. (To Westworld’s credit, it allows its antihero Dolores and some of her robotic compatriots to escape from this trope by season 3.) The most extreme version of this is poor Roadrunner in Looney Tunes, perpetually dodging that goddamn coyote. But once you look for it, you’ll see it again and again—and when Made for Love sent Hazel back to the Hub, it reminded me of another recent streaming adaptation that has relied on the trope so much it trapped its storytelling momentum. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s beloved speculative novel, has kept its hero, June, stuck in the hellish patriarchal theocracy of Gilead for three seasons now, her attempts at escape repeatedly thwarted with diminishing returns. As with Made for Love, the television adaptation of Atwood’s novel reshapes its protagonist into a pluckier made-for-screen incarnation. June, as portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, has been refashioned from an ordinary but intelligent woman struggling to stay alive and find peace in socio-political circumstances out of her control into a dashing, reckless resistance leader hell-bent on changing those circumstances. Yet despite this massive injection of moxie, the writers have been reluctant to allow June to escape, even while her less nervy sidekicks manage to do so.

The Handmaid’s Tale recently returned to Hulu for its fourth season, with June once again struggling against Gilead’s evil leadership. While she remains stuck in a society where she has been assigned to live her life as a sex slave, the seasons have left their mark. She is far from the woman we met in the pilot, now set much more on revenge than survival. The first few episodes are painful viewing, cycling June through hoping for deliverance to seeing those hopes dashed and back again in record time. The final episodes have not yet been made available for critics, but around the midway mark, the show finally allows for some long-anticipated forward momentum. Based on its three prior seasons, though, the probability that the finale will return the show to its status quo remains high.

While resetting the storyline happens across genres, shows set in dystopias seem especially at risk of leaning so hard on the device they stretch the series’ credulity—and the audience’s patience—far too thin. When the characters’ ultimate goals are to escape or revolt, it’s hard to allow for change without disrupting the show’s universe. Made for Love is still a new show, and it may yet avoid the narrative trap The Handmaid’s Tale fell into. If it is renewed for a second season, perhaps it will allow Hazel to move beyond the walls of the Hub and into a new chapter of her story. If not, it’ll be hard to make crawling out of a sewer look as fresh the second time around.

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